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Opinion: An Open Letter To Andy Serkis

Opinion: An Open Letter To Andy Serkis

August 17, 2011 | By Tim Borrelli

August 17, 2011 | By Tim Borrelli
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More: Console/PC, Art



[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, 5th Cell lead animator Tim Borrelli writes an open letter to renowned actorAndy Serkis, who says performance capture actors should be considered for the Academy Awards' Acting categories, but hasn't voiced the same support for animators.]

Dear Mr. Serkis,

If you deserve to be considered for an Academy Award nomination for Acting in regards to your performance motion capture, then every animator who has ever animated a character in any movie deserves consideration as well.

Sincerely,
Tim Borrelli

P.S., Let me clarify:

Recently, you have been quoted as claiming that performance capture actors deserve to be considered for the Academy Awards in Acting categories.Before I even start, let me say that I feel that you are a great actor. I don't doubt your acting ability, both on stage and on film. But that's not the debate here.

From what I gather, here is what you are suggesting. You seem to feel that performances like yours in Lord of the Rings (Gollum), King Kong (King Kong), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Caesar) should be recognized by The Academy as an individual effort in excellence of acting performance.

Wait. What?

Let's ignore the fact that animators have been doing this without motion capture longer than you have been suiting up for it.

Performance capture is the digital capture of a performance of an individual actor, to be later applied to a digital character. Yet according to you, "...there are two parts to the process. The first part is capturing the performance. Only later down the line do you start seeing the characters being painted over frame-by-frame using pixels."

First, that doesn't sound like an individual performance to me.Second, painted over? Using pixels? For a guy who has positioned himself to be the spokesperson for performance capture, it sounds like you don'tquiteunderstand what goes into the entire process.

Ignoring the fact that there is nothing "being painted over frame by frame using pixels" (almost) anywhere in the process, you seem to be ignorant of what happens to your performance data after you walk off the set. Many times, chunks of data need to be thrown out entirely and done by hand. Also, it is quite often that the actor's proportions don't match that of the digital characters, requiring a remapping of the motion.

This may not seem like it affects a performance, but it in fact does. Different proportions mean poses don't read the same. It means a slouch on a short actor is a hunchback on a tall character. It means delicate interactions often need to be heavily modified or redone with animation due to differing limb lengths. I could go on.

Long story short, it means the performance is not 1-to-1 from performance capture to screen.

Furthermore, you claim that "Performance-capture technology is really the only way that we could bring these characters to life... It's the way that Gollum was brought to life, and King Kong, and the Na'vi in Avatar, and so on, and it's really another way of capturing an actor's performance."

You then go on to say, "That's all it is, digital make-up."

What. The. Hell.

Well, makeup artists HAVE an Oscar category. So are you also suggesting that the people behind taking his performance to the big screen be considered in that category? When you say "that success using the technique can be rewarded with current accolades," is that what you mean? Should the modelers, animators, painters, shader TDs, lighters, etc., be considered for Makeup and Costume Design?

Makeup and Costume Design teams doamazingwork. I just have trouble seeing how modelers, animators, painters, shader TDs, lighters, etc. fit into those categories.

Or are you referring to the VFX category (which, while valid, is a much broader category than acting), or even the lesser known, non-televised technology categories? Are you basically saying that your performance, which wouldn't even be viewable without those aforementioned teams of people, is more deserving of public recognition?

I, as well as many others, won't argue that motion capture data is only as good as the actor in the suit. I have directed and worked with motion capture data from actors on both ends of the talent spectrum. I agree that without the proper direction and performance, the end result that I produced wouldn't be as emotional, as powerful, or as accurate.

However, I also know that without a talented digital character team (animators, modelers, TDs, etc.), that performance will NEVER look as intended.

What you've done here, Mr. Serkis, is downplay the contribution that the whole team makes to bring a character like Gollum to life. What's worse is that you aren't alone. In this featurette on the making of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the animation team is completely overlooked!

Is the technology that Weta developed awe-inspiring and exciting? Hell yes it is. I'd love to be on set just for a day and see what the technology is like from start to finish. It would be amazing (and after writing this, I may never get the chance). But to see the contribution of an entire discipline glossed over so readily by both a recognizable name (your own, Andy Serkis!) AND a production team is disheartening and frustrating.

Yet, as infuriating as that may be, this is not the point I want to make here. That point is:

If you deserve to be considered for an Academy Award nomination for Acting, then every animator who has ever animated a character in any movie deserves consideration as well.

Animators, both hand-keyed and motion capture artists, breathe life into their characters. They push performances of their characters to an artistic limit, based on the direction they are given. Many even use video reference- animators often of themselves performing (yes, ACTING) the scenes they are working on, mocap artists using video shot on set.

Not to single one person out, but some do it REALLY WELL, like this example (password: education).And this one.

It should be clear that this guy is an amazing animator. He's also a great example of an animator using his own performance to bring characters to life (in the case of Rio, a female lead, and supporting male, and a bird.) As animators, we've been taught that video reference is a powerful tool. Like any tool, however, it requires training and practice to get right.

Some things may come more naturally (in a male animator's case, the supporting male). Some things may take more creativity (like humanizing a creature, such as a bird). Even other things may take a bigger investment into the movement and emotion of the character (the female lead).

However, the end result in Rio didn't come from just an animator's performance. It came from the ability to translate that acting into what the digital character warranted.

Like you, Mr. Serkis, animators use their performance to improve and sell the characters they are acting for, in the interest of the whole story.

So my question for you is this:

Don't animators also deserve individual recognition from the Academy for Acting?

Mr. Serkis, please leave a comment here, or drop me a line. I welcome the discussion, as would many others who do and do not share my opinion.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]


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